The Nobel Prize

Today the Nobel Prize in economics was presented to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson who developed auction theory and auction design. The Nobel Prize site provides an excellent background for understanding their work. Interestingly, this includes a differentiation between the common value of a good and the private value as a key feature. Where the definition of a private value is defined as one achieved when the bid decision is made independently of any other bidder in the auction.

The 1996 Laureate in Economic Sciences, William Vickrey, established auction theory in the early 1960s. He analysed a special case, in which the bidders only have private values for the good or service being auctioned off. This means that the bidders’ values are entirely independent of each other. For instance, this could be a charity auction for dinner with a celebrity (say a Nobel Laureate). How much you are willing to pay for such a dinner is subjective – your own valuation is not affected by how other bidders value the dinner. So how should you bid in this type of auction? You should not bid more than the dinner is worth to you. But should you bid lower, perhaps getting the dinner at a lower price?

The explanation goes on to describe the theory of common value.

Entirely private values are an extreme case. Most auction objects – such as securities, property and extraction rights – have a considerable common value, meaning that part of the value is equal to all potential bidders. In practice, bidders also have different amounts of private information about the object’s properties.

The portion of the bid that is devoted to the common value is based on a projection of what the bidder feels others will pay. Thus to have better knowledge is advantageous. Here the familiar diamond trader example if used.

Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine that you are a diamond dealer and that you – as well as some other dealers – are contemplating a bid on a raw diamond, so you can produce cut diamonds and sell them on. Your willingness to pay only depends on the resale value of the cut diamonds which, in turn, depends on their number and quality. Different dealers have different opinions about this common value, depending on their expertise, experience and the time they have had to examine the diamond. You could assess the value better if you had access to the estimates of all the other bidders, but each bidder prefers to keep their information secret.

Now if the diamond traders are from a tight knit community, say of the Jewish faith, than all those in the faith are included in the advantageous bidding environment. The information is public information within the group, private to those at the exterior. This type of diamond trader group is used by sociologist James S. Coleman in his famous treatise from 1988, Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.

Wholesale diamond markets exhibit a property that to an outsider is
remarkable. In the process of negotiating a sale, a merchant will hand
over to another merchant a bag of stones for the latter to examine in
private at his leisure, with no formal insurance that the latter will not
substitute one or more inferior stones or a paste replica. The merchandise
may be worth thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Such free
exchange of stones for inspection is important to the functioning of this
market. In its absence, the market would operate in a much more cumbersome, much less efficient fashion.

Coleman stresses the benefits of assurances. Assurance which can be given due to the greater knowledge of the stones, their quality and source of origin. Coleman says:

Observation of the wholesale diamond market indicates that these close
ties, through family, community, and religious affiliation, provide the
insurance that is necessary to facilitate the transactions in the market. If
any member of this community defected through substituting other stones
or through stealing stones in his temporary possession, he would lose
family, religious, and community ties

Coleman concludes that there is value in this. He’s view is that the value lies in the social ties, or the social network, which parties to the transaction are able to access.

Another more recent use of the Jewish diamond traders appears in a paper by Barack D. Richmond, How Community Institutions Create Economic Advantage: Jewish Diamond Merchants in New York. In this case the value retained by the group are derived from an ability to enforce contracts. Here’s an excerpt from the paper, bolding is mine:

The particularly interesting feature of this system is the economic role
of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox provide critical value-added
How Community Institutions Create Economic Advantage 415
services that add significant efficiency to the system of exchange. They work
as skilled diamond cutters whose polishing increases the sale prices of stones,
and they play the essential role of middlemen brokers who match certain
stones with the buyers who most value them. Their unique credibility provides
the Jewish merchants with a comparative advantage over rival merchant groups
that lack such community foundations, and their role identifies limitations
to public contract enforcement that persist even in developed economies.

When courts fail, community institutions can arise to fill their place.

Here’s what we know from these three uses of the Jewish diamond traders example. All three feel the group has created some type of value—not to anyone individual but a blanket of value across the group. This value has something to do with how the group is connected, how the information flows through its membership. And that there is a commitment to maintain a standard of enforcement.

What is exciting about Milgrom and Wilson’s differentiation of private and common value is that there is a tie-in to price. An auction bring buyers and sellers into a marketplace. And the values that these two new Nobel Laureates observed reflect activity of a private nature and that of a common nature.

As pointed out in previous posts the categorizing of goods as either private or public (or club and common) is inadequate. My first post here introduces the idea that a haircut can have a public (common) component. And I also wrote a post about national defense as there are many examples of how this public good was used to the benefit (privately) of a sub-group. The long and the short of it is that goods are goods. It is how they are employed, by what types of groups, which determines the portion of their price derived from a private sphere and that derived from a public sphere.

What is Public- National Defense edition

National defense is the most common example cited as an economic public good. It is certainly the oldest public good, harking back to the times of kings and round tables, and even before. Allegiances were made, city walls built. But let’s see if it always meets the economists’ definition of providing a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous.

The name alone gives away that it is already a different something than, say, sunlight. Right off the bat the precursor ‘national’ tags the defense to a nation. So it is a service to one nation, excluding all outsiders. In this case being non-excludable really means the service cannot exclude citizens of the nation in question.

However, there also seems to be all sorts of exceptions to this rule. Take the Japanese Americans that were locked up during WWI. Around sixty-two percent of the internees were US citizens and yet a global conflict thrust them at odds with their nation. Recently Mike Pence criticised the President Obama Administration for not rescuing ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller. The claim being that this US citizen did not receive the protections of national defense that she and her family deserved.

Like any definition it only takes one counter example to throw the statement into question. Let’s consider whether the good is non-rivalrous: that the use of it by one consumer does not diminish the use of it by another. This seems right. Everyone in Philadelphia received the same protections against terrorism when Navy Seals took out Osama Bin Laden, as folks in Albuquerque. This mastermind of evil would do harm to any American which means his demise makes all Americans safer.

Yet, our history is riddle with military involvement in countries in efforts to preserve business interests abroad. In the early part of the twentieth century the US defense forces were repeatedly used in Nicaragua to protect business interests. Declarations against such activities include objecting to the use of a national resource to benefit a sub-group, the business community. (excludable) And since the military is run on a budget, the occupation of Nicaragua from 1912-1933 undoubtedly took away from expenditures on other national defense initiatives. The end goal of defending all citizens is rivalrous as there is always a menu of possible national pursuits that could drain the national purse.

It seems to me that there are no such things as goods that are solely for the public benefit. There are only goods, or rather goods and services. And those goods and services can be used by individuals or groups, for private or public objectives. Some goods, by nature, are more prone to be shared within groups. Some are more productively produced while strongly preserving private property rights. Groups with shared interests decide how to employ goods and services, where the groups can be as large as the human race all the way down to a couple.

Changing Priorities in the Neighborhood

Crime has been on the rise since May of 2020. In Minneapolis more than 400 people have been shot and 64 killed so far this year. It’s common to hear residents say they know more people that have been carjacked in broad daylight than have contracted Covid-19.

One neighborhood is organizing to do something about it. When a building in their neighborhood was slated to become a Salvation Army run women’s shelter, the moms went into high gear. Their priorities had changed and the folks in Near North weren’t going to have bureaucrats telling them what they needed.

Residents were vigorously opposed. A Mother’s Love went door-knocking in a multi-block radius of the Gordon Center and found no one knew about the proposal. The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council—the official neighborhood association—filed an injunction to halt the process.

Council member Ellison showed up. Elected in 2017 on the promise “to imagine a future for the North Side authored by North Siders,” he apologized for poor public engagement and encouraged constituents to lay out their concerns. “I don’t at all take skepticism of this project as, like, an attack on homeless women,” he assured them.

Frustrated residents pulled no punches. There were already three homeless shelters within a mile of the Gordon Center, yet the North Side had been without a sanctuary for at-risk youth since the 1980s, they said. Many community-led proposals for the Gordon Center had been rejected over the years.

The residents, who were organizing on their own time, objected to the shelter not because they weren’t sympathetic to the cause. It’s just that in the ever changing landscape of neighborhood needs, the effect of increased crime was more damaging to the youth than the needs of the women.

“I’ve lived here for 43 years,” said Willard Hay resident Esther Adams. “I’ve seen kids shot on this corner, I’ve seen kids killed on this corner. We’re just trying to help the kids here.”

In addition to the granular differentiation of need, the resources necessary for a youth center is thought to be considerably less than the homeless shelter.

The Gordon Center (homeless shelter) will cost more than $4 million to convert into a shelter, but peace activists like Clemons’ group, A Mother’s Love, believe it would cost considerably less for a youth center because of the way the building is designed. For one, it already has a playground.

In this case the system worked. The neighborhood did the work to voice a preference between services for their group. It was close though. The building permit had already been approved for the homeless shelter. If the moms had been too busy to put in the time, or their council member too distance from his constituents or the county’s ambition too strong, there could have been four shelters and no youth center.

It just seems like there should be some general tracking of these things by neighborhood. A hospital wouldn’t go into an area with three other hospitals. Even a McDonald’s wouldn’t have four franchisees within a mile of each other. Some sort of indexing of the mix of services provided to not only serve residents, but also to be sure that various age groups and household formations are being supported.

Is it Public or Is it Private?

Marginal Revolution University is an incredible source of economic knowledge. In addition to the course work there are videos and games. Here’s one designed to help distinguish between public goods, private good, common goods and club goods. At the end of the game there is a cheat sheet of how to classify these goods and services.

Pure Private Goods/Services (excludable, rival)
● Haircut
● Pizza
● Website design
● Table service at a restaurant
● Snuggie
● House


Club Goods/Services (excludable, non­rival)
● Netflix
● Amusement park
● Uncongested toll roads (highway)
● The movies
● YMCA membership


Common Goods (non­excludable, rival)
● Busy city street
● Hospital E.R.
● Tuna in the ocean
● The meadow where your sheep graze
● Wildlife
● Forests


Pure Public Goods/Services (non­excludable, non­rival)
● Wikipedia
● National defense
● Uncongested city street
● City fireworks
● Air to breathe
● Google
● Asteroid defense

To understand the economic arrangement I talk about in this blog, these categories have to be rearranged. I ask people to consider that there are two natures to every product: public and private. The nature is dependent upon who, or which group, has access to the goods.

Let me give you an example. A haircut seems like a pretty straightforward private good. The exchange is between two individuals where the customer clearly owns the hair. But what if the haircut was given to disadvantaged kids in an elementary school by a barber who was providing the service as a gesture of community involvement?

The purpose of the activity is to enhance a child’s self esteem and in doing so increase their productivity at school. The barbers work for free so no money is exchanged to make this a private transaction. There are no production reports, nor does this get measured as a part of GDP. This service is done as a public service not a private transaction. Mind you not just anyone can get the free haircut. Only the kids at the elementary school in question. Everyone else must pay. So the public nature has to be attached to that grouping: it is a public good for the elementary school kids.

This is the reason a haircut cannot be classified exclusively as a private service. In due time, I will sort through this whole list of goods and services to convert you to the new classifications of public and private! In due time.

Notorious RBG

Like everyone else, I’ve been consuming the articles about the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsberg who recently passed away after 27 year on the US Supreme court. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about her until recently. But there are three things I will take away from how she lived her life.

After graduating from Cornell in 1954 she married her husband of 56 years. A few years later she followed him to Harvard Law School.

The law dean reportedly invited the nine female students in the class to dinner and asked, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” Ginsburg said she gave “the answer he expected”: “My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.”

She was willing to make the sacrifice of sucking up a personal assault if it’s that what it took to get where she wanted to go. What if she had stormed out and held a protest and rallied a march? Would women be better off today? Instead she bowed to the expectations of her time, in order to forge ahead. She was strategizing a war plan where emotion pull many people into a street fight.

After she graduated with a law degree from Columbia, she had a difficult time landing a job with a law office. It is apparent that claims of a meritocratic system was (and still is) constrained by social norms. But Ruth Bader Ginsberg must have looked at the employer pool as a group where not each and everyone had to want to employ her. She just needed one job, one employer. And that was a courtship with the U.S. District Court.

Once again, instead of being distracted by an individual or a small set of individuals that blocked her path, she had faith in the larger community. She kept looking for where she could trade her skills instead of trying to convert each objector. She was an optimist.

When it came time to converting opinions in the court room, where she had earned stature and prominence, she used perspective. She brought the claims before the male judges in the form of claims made by men, that way they would not be biased by gender. She wrote the story in a way that they could see the work for what it was.

There’s been some really interesting work done by the scholar Cary Franklin about the men Justice Ginsburg represented when she was at the ACLU, and how when she was bringing them before male justices, the male justices had trouble believing that these guys actually wanted to take care of their elderly mothers or their children, because it was so foreign to them. So in some ways what she was doing was quite challenging to them. But at the same time, being a canny strategist – showing that men had skin in the game, and that they too were harmed by gender inequality – enlisted a broader range of allies for her.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a women who played the long game. And it has paid off in spades for all women to benefit. She is a true feminist.

Here is a nice photo essay of her life.

Pop quote

Name the author, title and page number (if applicable) for pop quotes and you will receive a grand prize!

On my return home, as I passed the relatively genteel playground near where I live, I noted that its only inhabitants in the late afternoon, with the mothers and the custodian gone were two small boys threatening to bash a little girl with their skates, and an alcoholic who had roused himself to shake his head and mumble that they shouldn’t do that. Farther down the street, on a block with many Puerto Rican immigrants, was another scene of contrast. Twenty-eight children of all ages were playing on the sidewalk without mayhem, arson, or any event more serious than a squabble over a bag of candy. They were under the casual surveillance of adults primarily visiting in public with each other. The surveillance was only seemingly casual, as was proved when the candy squabble broke out and peace and justice were re-established. The identities of the adults kept changing because ferent ones kept putting their heads out the windows, and different ones kept coming in and going out on errands, or passing by and lingering a little. But the numbers of adults stayed fairly constant-between eight and eleven- during the hour I watched. Arriving home, I noticed that at our end of our block, in front of the tenement, the tailor’s, our house, the laundry, the pizza place and the fruit man’s, twelve children were playing on the sidewalk in sight of fourteen adults.

It’s all about the Group

Amy Finkelstein’s video for MRU about the economics of mammograms just popped into my email. She and her colleagues are wondering about the efficacy of the present policy for screening for breast cancer. The blurb following the video explains.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The current recommendation is that women should receive annual mammograms starting at age 40. But who is actually following this recommendation, and does that affect the test’s efficacy? MIT’s Amy Finkelstein and two of her coauthors, Tamar Oostrom and Abigail Ostriker, explore this question in this video. This video is based on the following paper: Screening and Selection: The Case of Mammograms Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Tamar Oostrom, Abigail Ostriker, and Heidi Williams https://economics.mit.edu/files/20062

Past studies suggested dividing women into two groups in order to tackle a public health response to cancer: those under age 40 and those over age 40. Once over forty years of age, women are considered at a higher risk and thus were encouraged to have mammograms on a regular basis. The Susan G Komen organization provides data on how screening has saved lives. “From 1989-2017 (most recent data available), breast cancer mortality decreased by 40 percent due to improved breast cancer treatment and early detection [60]. Since 1989, about 375,900 breast cancer deaths in U.S. women have been avoided [60].”

It wasn’t long, however, that the drawbacks of misdiagnosis became apparent. False positive tests were causing patients unnecessary mental and physical costs. The fear and treatment associated with a false positive took time, energy and resources away from women who were in fact not likely to acquire the disease.

Amy and her MIT colleagues found that grouping by age was not specific enough. They observed that women who comply, and get screened, share habits that actually make them less likely to be prone for a positive test. Based on information from the medical community, women who disregarded screenings were more likely to eventually experience breast cancer.

By regrouping the women in consideration of their norms and lifestyles, the MIT professors are acknowledging that the public health of women in regards to breast cancer is multidimensional. They do not propose a new public policy but rather further insight into how the topic should be considered. Tamar Oostrom voices in the video: “our paper brings an additional dimension” to the issue.

When you think of the nature of people who would follow the recommendations and comply with regular testing, they are probably folks who can afford to be tested, both in the sense of the medical services expense and in the time it takes out of their lives. They probably have access to transportation to be tested. They have the willpower and ability to prepare and eat a healthy diet and exercise. It’s interesting to note that many if not all of these activities are tied into access to other public goods.

This video confirms a couple of things. Putting public resources towards a problem reaches a point of no additional returns, and can cause additional costs to the targeted group. Secondly, solving for the optimal amount of screening involves an understanding of how to distinguish groups and there access to other public goods markets.

Here’s the deal 101

Our local NBC news outlet recently ran a story about an elderly couple receiving help from neighbors after being criticized for not keeping up the exterior paint on their home. It totaled $67,000 worth of help. There is no name given to this transfer of money. When a private party helps themselves to $67,000 from their employer it is called embezzlement. When a politician helps themselves to $67,000 from their campaign fund it is called corruption.

The old school explanation for this activity is to denote it as a form of charity. But is it really a gift? Neighborliness is a term that shows up on surveys. But what does that mean? I see this exchange between the neighbors of Gloucester is the most basic transaction in a economy of groups. Let’s pull it apart.

It all started with an anonymous note left for the couple which read, “Please Paint Me! 😦 Eye sore – Your Neighbors. Thanks.” Although clearly written by one individual, the message is presented as a community concern. Signed, your neighbors. You’ve probably heard this type of chatter before. A house on a main road is dilapidated, or decorated with eccentric siding. Comments like, ‘I really wish someone would do something about that place.’ Or, ‘Some people are bringing down the neighborhood!’ So although one neighbor wrote the note, thoughts of this nature were undoubtedly mulled over by many a passerby.

A personal residence is deemed the bastion of private property, and property rights are a keystone feature of our economic system. But the note indicates that there is a hazy area not reflected in the legal deed, filed in the county records, which spells out the owners names. The area residents feel they have a right to demand that the exterior meet their expectations. This is not a novel idea. In fact cities even have ordinances which address the exteriors of properties regarding thresholds for debris removal and grass mowing.

The couples’ daughter took to social media to voice her response to the note. She points out that her parents had lived in community for the past 50 years. And that during this long history they had maintained their home, and hence contributed many years of service towards an acceptable streetscape. “My family for many years took care and maintained this house as best they could…” 

The reason for the disrepair could happen to anyone, it was an act of nature. The article reports that “Marilyn, 72, developed multiple sclerosis about 30 years ago and is mostly confined to her bed, and Jimmy, 71, recently recovered from a quadruple bypass…” Health concerns take time and resources away from the couples ability to comply with the norms of the neighborhood.

Once the word got out about the need, once demand for goods and services was established, a voluntary response from the community resulted in a $67,000 balance in a GoFundMe account. Currency is very liquid, yet these funds are not fungible. As the report confirms the money is “to be used for new siding on their home, new windows, roof and stairs.”

There is no reporting of free riding or extortion, even though funds are seemingly extracted from a greater group to a private party. Nor is this activity portrayed in a religious or moral sense. The voluntary transfer of resources to improve the exterior of the home is held together by a communal objective, one that the recipients contributed to over. This transparent and voluntary activity is the most basic transaction in economy of groups.

“People look out for each other in Gloucester,” he said. “If somebody needs some help, we just get together and do it. It’s all just very heartwarming.” What I hear him saying is that Gloucester is a town with a free an open economy. And yes, that is heartwarming.